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IBM shows off ThinkPad prototypes

The two ThinkPad notebook PCs are designed to highlight how laptops could be more comfortable for everyday use.

IBM on Tuesday will unveil two prototype ThinkPad notebook PCs, designed to illustrate how laptops could be more comfortable for everyday use.

IBM designers, envisioning the next generation of the 10-year-old notebook ThinkPad line, have been studying how to make ThinkPads easier to use, without sacrificing important characteristics such as their performance, light weight and battery life.

"What we sought to do was to study the area of ergonomics and ease of use associated with notebook computers," said David Hill, director of PC design for IBM's personal systems group.

"Today, many people have (notebooks) as their only computer. That means that you use them in a number of different ways. So we sought to do a couple different things. Could we take the single box of a ThinkPad and fold it or unfold it in a different way?"

Notebooks are gaining in popularity with consumers and businesses, and more people use them as their primary computer. But the characteristics that draw people to notebooks, such as their small size, result in undesirable features such as fixed keyboard and screen positions, which aren't always as comfortable to use for hours on end.

IBM's ThinkPad G-series offers many characteristics similar to a desktop PC and features an angled keyboard that Big Blue said is easier to use. But the company's two prototypes take those efforts a step further.

One ThinkPad design almost metamorphoses into a mini-desktop. It opens like a clamshell, but once open, its keyboard can be detached and the height of its screen increased to a more comfortable level with a special hinge. The machine allows more options as to where to place the screen and where to locate the keyboard relative to it, IBM said.

"It enables different ergonomics for using the machine and also allows me to do something different with it," Hill said.

IMAGE TEXT HERE The second ThinkPad prototype has a special double hinge that allows the keyboard to tilt upward and slide forward for more comfortable typing. The height of the display simultaneously rises by about 3 inches. The keyboard does not detach, however.

"It can be used like a traditional ThinkPad," Hill said. "What's different, though, is it gives a choice of using it like a notebook or more like a desktop by pulling the display upward."

Manufacturers show off prototype notebooks from time to time. Intel, for instance, often touts notebook designs such as its multiple-hinged Florence tablet PC prototype. However, while new designs generate a lot of interest, new machines don't catch always catch on quickly.

IBM discontinued its ThinkPad TransNote, a product that combined an ultralight ThinkPad with a legal pad, after about a year on the market. Even the newest notebook category, the convertible tablet PC, has caught on slowly. The tablet PC, which is based on Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software, allows a person to open its screen, rotate it 180 degrees, and fold it back down to create a writing tablet. IMAGE TEXT HERE To date, the worldwide market for all tablet PCs, including the convertibles, totals a few hundred thousand unit shipments per year, a tiny number compared with about 140 million units in the worldwide PC market each year, according to research firm IDC.

Still, IBM plans to show off the prototypes to customers in private meetings at this week's TechXNY, a technology trade show and conference taking place in Manhattan.

While the prototypes are not working computers, IBM could manufacture one or both of the machines if there is enough positive feedback from customers, Hill said.

The prototypes were built out of IBM's current ThinkPad T40, an Intel Pentium M-based notebook that comes with a 14.1-inch screen, a move that could simplify production of the machines in the future.